Chaos in Britain’s Covid labs: Scientist lifts lid on how government facilities processing coronavirus tests are using inefficient methods and running out of staff amid swab fiasco
- Concerns have been raised about the Government’s seven ‘lighthouse labs’
- Leading scientist said he was ‘appalled by what I saw’ during a tour of the labs
- Warned labs are poorly run, lacking staff and have no automatic processes
A leading scientist has today warned that Covid testing ‘is dying on its a**e’, as he said he was ‘appalled by what I saw’ at the government’s testing labs.
Concerns have been raised about the Government’s seven ‘lighthouse labs’ and their ability to process results, due to shortages of staff and equipment.
Genomics scientist and inventor Phil Robinson told The Times that the Lighthouse Labs were poorly managed, running out of staff and failed to set up automatic processes before a second wave of infections.
He told the paper: ‘Every part of the process was poor. The other ludicrous issue they have is they have 20 different types of tube coming into the lab. When you are running a high throughput lab it’s only sensible to have one. Why they haven’t standardised that I have no idea.’
A scientist has warned of chaos in the Government’s coronavirus testing labs. Pictured is a volunteer processing samples at a laboratory in Alderley Park, Cheshire
The proportion of people getting their Covid-19 test results within 24 hours has plummeted for all kinds of test, performance data showed today
TEST & TRACE ‘COULD BE OUTSOURCED TO AMAZON’
The UK’S test and trace system could be outsourced to a delivery giant such as Amazon, it was reported last night.
Ministers are said to be planning to hand over the running of the testing service to a logistics firm as the system struggles to cope with increased demand for tests.
A invitation to bid for a contract covering the management of the entire ‘end-to-end’ supply chain will be issued next month, The Daily Telegraph reported.
A Government source said ‘experts in delivery services’ were needed. ‘At the moment, the management of NHS Test and Trace has been in-house but, as we go into winter, we need experts in this area to take it forward,’ they said.
Amazon, DHL and other major logistics firms are all reportedly likely to be competing for the huge contract which will be the linchpin of the Health Secretary’s promise to deliver 500,000 tests a day by the end of next month.
An information notice issued by the Department of Health calls for potential bidders to register their interest in the contract to co-ordinate the testing service’s supply change.
It says: ‘In order to significantly scale up the number of daily tests as well as making the operations more efficient, we are looking for an end-to-end management of all associated supply chain and logistics processes along the chain.’
On Thursday, the Government announced that it was launching two new ‘Lighthouse’ testing labs in Newcastle and Bracknell.
Accompanying new sites in Newport and Charnwood, the four labs promise to increase capacity to deliver 500,000 tests per day by the end of October, DHSC said.
NHS Providers, which represents NHS trust leaders, argued that the country was ‘a long way off where we need to be with testing’.
Plans have also been released for a Lighthouse laboratory dealing with testing and a Covid-19 research hub, which could create 1,100 jobs in the North East of England.
The new facility would serve the region, as well as northern Cumbria and Yorkshire, and would be the latest expansion of the Government’s national Test and Trace programme.
The Lighthouse lab will be based in Gateshead with a specialist innovation lab at the Helix site in Newcastle, focused on developing new approaches to coronavirus science.
The project will be a partnership between Newcastle City Council and the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, as well as public health teams, local universities and industry.
Deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said trust leaders were ‘increasingly concerned’ that testing shortages could put pressure on NHS services and winter preparations due to growing staff absences.
‘Trust leaders are concerned that they do not have the detail on why there are shortages, how widespread they are or how long they will last,’ she added.
Reacting to the latest test and trace figures, Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, said it was a ‘huge concern’ that the test and trace system performance ‘continues to go backwards’ and appeared ‘on the verge of collapse’.
He added: ‘Perhaps the biggest problem is that people cannot get tested, which means thousands of people are not going into the system in the first place. Ministers must get a grip and fix testing now.’
Dr Mike Skinner, who volunteered to work in a Lighthouse Laboratory dealing with Covid-19 tests, said half the work was involved in sorting the logistics of handling the samples.
The reader in virology at Imperial College London told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘In the lab, when the testing was upscaled back in March, you really had to get all kinds of sample kits from lots of different producers, there were lots of difficulties in that.
‘We had to put half of our staff into handling issues with barcoding, leaks – we actually had to remove the swabs from the tubes so they didn’t gum-up some of the robots down the line.’
He added: ‘It really is very much about logistics.’
Members of the public are pictured queueing outside a coronavirus testing centre in Edmonton, North London, as people across the country say they are struggling to get hold of tests
Coronavirus testing centres have been pictured empty today despite hundreds of people saying they cannot book an appointment online. Meanwhile the company that runs them, Sodexo, is recruiting more staff and officials will say only that they are diverting capacity to badly-hit areas (Pictured: A test site in Leeds)
Dozens of drivers turned up at a test site to find there were no staff to swab them, on the day the health secretary announced tougher coronavirus measures for people in the north-east.
People who had booked a test on Thursday at Doxford Park, an out-of-town business park in Sunderland, were told by the media they would not be tested, as there were no officials there to inform them.
Some had been turned away on the approach to the centre by security guards, who told them the computers had crashed and to try again later.
HGV mechanic Brad Cockburn, 28, made a 100-mile round trip from Bedale, North Yorkshire, only to find there were no staff, not even a tent or other infrastructure, at the site on the out-of-town business park.
He said: ‘There’s no organisation, it’s piss-poor performance as usual.’
Rob Reid, a 58-year-old cash and carry manager from Sunderland, booked for 3.45pm, only to find there were no staff.
He said: ‘It annoys me. My concern is about my health and it comes across that the Government is not that concerned, when they are taking bookings on the NHS website and there’s nobody here to do it.’
Concerns have been echoed by Nicola Sturgeon, who yesterday said she still has concerns about the amount of time being taken to process coronavirus tests at UK Government laboratories.
The First Minister again spoke of pressures on the testing system in England which have caused a delay in people getting results.
Her comments came as a UK Government minister insisted coronavirus testing capacity in Scotland is ‘increasing enormously’.
Iain Stewart also said that if decisions need to be made over who should be the priority for testing in Scotland, that would be for the Scottish Government.
Coronavirus tests in England are to be rationed as the Government at Westminster struggles to get to grips with soaring demand.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there will be testing ‘prioritisation’ for people with acute clinical need and those in social care settings, as he acknowledged ‘operational challenges’ in the system.
First Minister Ms Sturgeon stressed on Tuesday there was ‘not by and large’ an issue with getting tests north of the border.
But she said ‘constraints’ at the UK Government’s Lighthouse laboratories meant results were being delayed – an issue she has raised in talks with Mr Hancock and Dido Harding, the head of the UK testing system.
Speaking at her coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, the First Minister said: ‘Although we continue to have some concerns about the time being taken to process tests in the Lighthouse laboratories, there are no signs at this stage of people in Scotland facing widespread difficulties in booking a test.’
She said the backlog in testing is now reducing and her Government will ‘monitor these issues very closely’.
She added she is considering if the regular testing of care home staff – which is currently dealt with by the Lighthouse laboratory system – could be taken over by the NHS in some areas.
Ms Sturgeon said: ‘The reason we have been looking at that is to see if we can free up capacity within the UK system, given the pressure it has been experiencing.’
Mr Stewart stressed the UK Government, which he said is responsible for the majority of testing in Scotland, is acting on the problems.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, he said the Government is ‘increasing the overall capacity’ in the testing system.
He insisted it is right that the UK Government had acted to prioritise access for testing in England to key workers and those in care homes.
Asked what should happen in Scotland, Mr Stewart said: ‘That is for the Scottish Government to determine.
‘What we are doing as a UK Government is increasing enormously the availability of testing in Scotland.
‘I am glad that the Scottish Government are increasing their side of testing but the majority of testing in Scotland is run by UK bodies, and we are expanding that. There will be another walk- through centre opening in Glasgow in the next few days, so that availability will be there.
‘At this point we just ought to say a huge thank-you to the people at the Lighthouse lab in Glasgow who are working 24/7. When they first started off they were doing about 40 tests a day, they’re now doing tens of thousands.’
The new walk-in testing centre at the Arc Sport Centre in Glasgow is due to open on Friday afternoon, the Scotland Office said.
With a walk-in centre already open in St Andrews, Ms Sturgeon said plans are ‘on track’ for a further four such facilities to open in the next two weeks as part of a move to ‘establish 20 more walk-in centres across Scotland over the autumn and winter’.
The 90-minute coronavirus test that’s 94% accurate: On-the-spot Covid-19 screening that delivers result in less than two hours could transform diagnosis this winter, experts say
An on-the-spot Covid test which delivers a result in 90 minutes could transform diagnosis in NHS hospitals this winter, experts say.
A study published last night revealed the CovidNudge test – a machine the size of a shoebox – does not deliver any ‘false positive’ results, meaning all those who test positive are carrying the virus.
It has a ‘specificity’ of 94 per cent – meaning 6 per cent of those given the all-clear will actually have the virus – but this is far better than the 70 per cent specificity rate seen with the standard Covid test.
The NHS has already ordered 5,000 machines and 5.8 million testing cartridges, at the cost of about £30 per test.
The CovidNudge is a machine the size of a shoebox and delivers results in 90 minutes
The NHS has already ordered 5,000 machines and 5.8 million testing cartridges
Dido Harding claims demand for testing is up to four times capacity
Baroness Dido Harding (right) was grilled by MPs
Demand for Covid tests is up to four times the system’s capacity, Baroness Harding admitted today.
The Tory peer revealed the staggering mismatch between the number of people wanting tests and the ability to carry them out as she claimed 27 per cent have no symptoms.
Extraordinarily. she said no-one had ‘expected’ the ‘sizeable’ increase in demand – although it was widely predicted, blaming SAGE for getting their estimates wrong.
Lady Harding has been hauled before MPs to explain the shambles that has left thousands struggling to get checked.
She told the Science Committee that she did not have precise numbers for how many people wanted tests. But she said phone calls and website visits suggested it was ‘three to four times the number of tests we have available’.
Brazenly passing the buck for the chaos, Lady Harding said: ‘We built our capacity plans based on SAGE modelling for what we should be preparing for in the Autumn.’
Lady Harding confirmed the capacity now for diagnostic tests is just under 243,000 per day – a figure that the government has failed to publish for more than a week. Thousands of tests are being sent abroad to be processed, she said.
She said the government was ‘on track’ to increase capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October – although that would cover all types of tests, not just for whether people currently have coronavirus.
And she conceded that will not be enough. ‘I am certain we will need more as we go beyond the end of October,’ she said.
Eventually the machines could be used in schools, theatres and even private homes. They were used by the London Symphony Orchestra last month to give musicians the all-clear to perform at the Proms.
Some 10,000 people have been tested on the NHS so far, with a major roll-out due in the coming weeks.
The machine, designed by Imperial College London spinout company DnaNudge, is particularly useful for hospitals because it can be used at a patient’s bedside.
Because the turnaround time is so quick, doctors can make rapid treatment decisions without waiting hours or days for laboratory results.
The process involves collecting nasal and throat swabs and placing them on to a cartridge which goes into the machine – called a ‘NudgeBox’ – for analysis.
The device then looks for traces of genetic material belonging to the coronavirus.
Each machine has the ability to process up to 15 tests on the spot each day. Professor Graham Cooke, of Imperial, whose evaluation of the machine was published in the Lancet Microbe journal, said: ‘This test is particularly well suited for clinical settings when you are trying to make a rapid decision for a patient.
‘For example, we had a patient from last week who had a new diagnosis of Covid.
‘We were able to get the diagnosis confirmed within two hours of arriving and start remdesivir and dexamethasone [drugs used to treat severe Covid-19] on that basis.’
The test is being used across eight London hospitals and is expected to be rolled out at a national level.
Professor Cooke said there was no practical reason why it could not be used in someone’s home, but for now manufacturing was being targeted at healthcare use.
And while the machine excels at speed, accuracy and ease of use, it is not the answer to the Government’s current testing problems, because each machine can process only one test at a time.
‘It is not the answer if you need millions of tests a day,’ Professor Cooke said.
The team is also modifying the device so the test can simultaneously assess other respiratory diseases.
Dr Bob Klaber, director of strategy at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said: ‘Getting accurate results back to clinicians and their patients as quickly as possible makes a huge difference to how we safely manage clinical pathways and we are very much looking forward to rolling this out more widely.’
Professor Chris Toumazou, co-founder of DnaNudge, added: ‘The platform is well suited to testing in primary care and community settings with potential for use in non-healthcare settings such as care homes, schools, transport hubs, offices, and, to help bring the arts back, in theatres and venues.’
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